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Remember Pearl Harbor

The 50th anniversary of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor is coming up and nobody really knows how to celebrate it, or mourn it, or do what ever people do when they are really upset that people died, or are really upset that they killed people. Some Americans want to rekindle the past and drop nuclear bombs on Japan, and many Japanese want to forget the whole thing. Neither position is right, though. We should remember the past -- the real past -- but not through the fog of racism or the haze of false forgiveness.

When Japan attacked the United States without proper warning on Dec. 7, 1941, it dragged the United States into a war that Japan had already been fighting for 10 years. This much is true. Attempting to consolidate control over East Asia, Japan had attacked China in 1931 and occupied it throughout the decade, ultimately killing 100,000 civilians in the city of Nanking alone. The United States opposed the attacks and imposed economic sanctions on Japan, including an oil boycott. The Japanese government, angered by US meddling in areas of Asia they believed to be their exclusive domain, attacked the American Pacific fleet in Hawaii. The Japanese government had sent a message to Washington warning of the attacks, but the message had not been translated by the time the bombing occurred. Three thousand Americans were killed. The rest is history.

I don't mean to dwell on the past, but I don't think we should forget it, either. In Germany, students learn all about World War II, Nazism and the mistakes of their ancestors. German leaders, except a wacky few, admit that their forefathers screwed up, and the world is not afraid to trust Germany as the world once was.

Germany has struck a balance with itself militarily. Neither imperialistic nor isolationist, it contributes to peacekeeping forces when called upon, yet remains weary of further buildup. German businesses still sell chemical weapons to murderous dictators, and neo-Nazis still bash foreigners, but at least the German government is aware of the subtle, ancient flaws in their political culture, the racism and fear that the greatest of German philosophers have warned them about for centuries.

None of this has happened in Japan. Some Japanese blame the United States for a gap in understanding. True, when the United States occupied Japan after Japan surrendered in 1945, it attempted to suppress painful war memories to keep the Japanese happy. But the occupation ended 40 years ago, and Japan hasn't moved very far on its own. For Japanese schoolchildren, the war starts with the bombing of Hiroshima, and the belief that Japan is destined for greatness, leadership and control has never changed. All the official statements of regret following the war are empty oaths. The Japanese are sad that World War II happened, sad that they lost -- convinced that wars are things that drop from the sky, not things that people start.

Japanese foreign policy reflects this denial and confusion. At times shell-shocked and stubbornly isolationist, Japan attempts to cut itself off from the global security interests. At times bitter, it lashes out against the world for hating it so much, and links any apology for Pearl Harbor with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, something the Germans have never done even though they lost more civilians in the war than Japan. Some Japanese talk of an economic conquest of Asia, and how it would succeed where their military adventure failed. Others retreat into sadness, pacifism and neutrality. The world needs neither.

It is quaint, and sometimes even comforting, to mourn the dead. But Pearl Harbor's real meaning goes much beyond that. World War II in Asia started as a trade feud that went too far. Japan fought the world because it thought it could win, and more importantly, because it thought it had the right to win. Japan attacked the United States when and where it did because it thought Uncle Sam had gone soft. The United States, meanwhile, scorned the Japanese for their sneakiness, instead of recognizing that the United States had let itself be attacked by sleeping while it was supposed to be vigilant. When the United States did put itself together, it proved to the world that it was more powerful than it had ever been, and defeated Japan through honest effort and shear strength, not whimpering.

Japan started World War II. Whether the United States had foreknowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbor is irrelevant. The lessons of the attack and the responsibility for remembering Dec. 7, 1941, apply to both peoples. The United States and Japan must never ignore each other. They must never excuse each other for their wrongdoings, and they must never believe that they hold a monopoly on wisdom, morality or right to power.


Matthew H. Hersch, a sophomore in the Department of Physics, is an opinion editor of The Tech.